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Interracial Marriage And The Extended Family


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Americans are marrying outside of their races and ethnicities at record rates. What was considered taboo just a few decades ago is now largely considered OK.

In 2010, 15 percent of all new marriages in the country were mixed race, and sure, some of this is a product of immigration trends and population and cold hard math, but it is also the result of changing opinions. Today, nearly two-thirds of Americans say it would be fine if someone in their family married somebody from a different race or ethnicity.

But it's not always fine. It can still be hard for the families to accept something that is so different to them. If you married out, as it's called, how did the families take it, your families and the future in-laws? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on in this program, Charlie Trotter talks about retiring from his restaurant business. But first, we begin with Robyn McGee. She joins us from her office in Independence, Missouri. We understand, Robyn, it's a very busy day to you, and we appreciate your time.

You wrote an op-ed some time back about your own family. You are white, your husband is black. You have a daughter whom you describe as world-class chocolate, which is a Baskin-Robbins reference. But this daughter...

ROBYN MCGEE: Everyone knows my love of chocolate, I think, so - and ice cream.


DONVAN: So here's the thing: Your daughter has never met her grandfather, your father. Why?

MCGEE: That is correct.

DONVAN: What happened?

MCGEE: Well, I should say I also have a son who is now 20 months.

DONVAN: Oh, congratulations.

MCGEE: When I wrote that article - yeah, thank you. When I wrote that article, it was a good four years ago, I think, three or four years ago, and I kind of did it on a whim and didn't realize that it would come back to haunt me like this. But anyway, I'm happy to be on.

Well, it's a complicated thing, really. My history is a little bit complicated because it's not as simple as I married outside my race and then my father disowned me. It was a long journey to that disownership, you might say.

I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, and a lovely town, lovely people, but they - most of the people there were very much a product of their environment, and that includes my father. Pretty segregated town when I was growing up there. I imagine things have changed since.

But you - most of my friends, you just did not date outside your race. And so I did that when I was a teenager, and I also dated, you know, inside my race, and it was - the one time that I dated outside my race was the time that my father reacted very violently toward me.

I mean it was - he beat me up, you might say. After that, we mended our relationship and we kind of went on our way, and I went off to college, and everything was fine. I went off to graduate school in Mississippi, and that's where I met my husband, Howard, and fell in love. And we dated for a good four years, four to five years, and married in 1999.

DONVAN: Were you dreading your dad's reaction the whole time...

MCGEE: I was, in fact I did not - my father didn't know because of - you know, after he had reacted so violently the first time, I hid the relationship from him. In fact, he talked to my husband a couple of times on the phone and did not realize A) that he was my boyfriend, and B) that he was black. So - which I find interesting too.

So before we got married, I would say a week before our marriage, and we eloped, so this - because we knew, my father had said to me, you know, some time before we got married - I mean, that had always been a thorn in his side, the issue that I dated outside my race. It always bothered him, and it was always part of our relationship that - it was the crack in our relationship, you might say.

DONVAN: He said that.

MCGEE: That always bothered him. And he had said to me: I will go to jail before you marry a N-word. So I knew that, you know, we probably would not have a big splashy wedding. We worried about the, you know, if there's anyone here who has a reason to...


MCGEE: So we eloped. I had - my best friend was there, and that was it. Even my mother didn't come to my own wedding. And I sent him a letter a week before we got married, and I said I'm marrying this man. I love him. He's wonderful. He has his Master's degree. He's just fantastic in so many ways. And he's, you know, the person I want to spend my life with.

DONVAN: Let me ask you this. Let me just stop you for a second. How is his family reacting to all of this?

MCGEE: My husband's? Oh, they were - they welcomed me with open arms. I can't say enough good things about Howard's family. His mother is a delight. She, you know, she treats me like a daughter. She's just - they have all been very kind. Howard's parents were not married and his father died a few years ago but had a chance - we sent him pictures of our daughter at the time, and he - and his extended family as well. His grandparents, his cousins, his uncles, they've all been wonderful.

DONVAN: Robyn, do they know about how your dad feels about it? Have you talked with them about it?

MCGEE: That's a good question. Yes, I'm - I think - yes, I mean his mother did. I don't know if, you know, many of – you know, his grandparents and his cousins and uncles, if they knew, but I'm pretty sure his mother knew. I think I've had some conversations with her about - my parents later divorced after I got married because my mother just couldn't stand being in a relationship where she could talk to me, but my father - you know, I would call the house and when he would look on the caller ID and see that it was me, he wouldn't answer the phone. He would say your daughter is calling.

DONVAN: Well, as I said, Robyn, at the beginning, I know that you're taking time out from a very, very busy time at work. Let me just ask you this last quick question, and maybe it can't be a quick answer, but where do you see this resolving with your dad? And I found it interesting that you said he was a product of the time and place where he was raised, which almost sounds as though you have room to cut him a break on this.

But you're also not in touch with each other. Where do you see this ending with your dad?

MCGEE: Honestly, I see him not ever speaking to me again. He's a very stubborn man. I love my father, I do. He's a flawed human being, but I - you know, I love him and I understand him, maybe, in a way that other people don't. I don't want to force him to have a relationship with me if he doesn't want to.

You know, I don't know if that makes sense to anyone listening, but if he believes that strongly that he's willing to commit acts of violence in the - it's not something I want to push, you know, if that makes sense. And I do struggle with what I'm going to tell my children.

You know, my daughter asks: Why haven't I met your daddy? You know, she talks - I grew up on a farm and she talks about that all the time, I want to see your farm, I want to ride your horses, I want to - you know, and I haven't really come up with a good explanation to her about why she hasn't met him yet because I'm not quite ready to broach the subject.

DONVAN: Robyn, we're going to need to check in with you when that day comes. But I really want to thank you for sharing all of this - actually very personal, intimate and intense - and yet you come out of it sounding - you almost sound optimistic. So thank you for your time. Robyn McGee was telling us about her family story.

Now, I want to step back a little bit and take some calls from listeners who are asking this same question: What happened in your interracial marriage to the larger family? We're not necessarily talking about now between husband and wife but between in-laws and between yourself and parents. And Brian(ph) is in Birmingham, Michigan and we'd like to bring him into the conversation. Brian, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIAN: How's it going?

DONVAN: Good, thank you. What's your story?

BRIAN: Well, I'm African-American, and my wife is Indian, South Asian, and this was my second go at marriage. So I didn't deem it too necessary to have the big hoo-ha. So I decided to just get married to her and elope. And my mom was actually out of town.

So when she came back, she was furious about, you know, me not allowing her to be there, and when she found out that I was marrying who I was marrying, she later told me why couldn't I just find a nice Christian, you know, African-American girl. So I laughed at the notion. I said, you know, love knows no bounds. You can't choose who you're going to fall in love with.

You know, I thought I chose right at an earlier age and come to grips with there were definitely qualities that I was lacking what I was looking for, and I found them, you know, in my current wife.

DONVAN: So where do things stand now in the family overall, your wife and your mother and you and your mom?

BRIAN: Everything is as it should be. There - there's a little, I'd say a little bit of grudge with my wife knowing how my mom was in the beginning, but...

DONVAN: But your mom came around, you're saying. You mom came around to accepting?

BRIAN: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. My mom definitely, definitely come around. We go over there and eat dinner all the time. And actually, you know, when everything had gone down, we were actually thinking my mom would be accepting, and her mom would not be, and it was quite the opposite. Her mom treats me like her baby son, not just a son.

So it's - really, I'm glad that things turned out the way that it did. When we were with child, going to have my daughter, this is in the earlier days, she thought that my wife's family was more or less going to kill me and take our daughter back to India.

DONVAN: And you're not saying that figuratively?


BRIAN: No, I'm not saying - and that was one of the fears and one of the prejudices that she had as to why she had her reservations on, you know, not going outside. It was just merely from the fact of her not knowing and having that communication with other, you know, Indian people just to know how, you know, things are.

DONVAN: Interesting. And the nice thing, Brian, is you stayed a romantic through all of it. You married for love, and it doesn't always work out, but in your case it did, against odds, so congratulations to you, and thanks very much for sharing your story with us.

BRIAN: Thank you.

DONVAN: We're talking about interracial marriage and the impact on - and the response from the larger extended families, from the parents and maybe even from the brothers and the sisters and the in-laws and the cousins, just how easily they adapt to the news in an era where interracial marriage is actually on the upswing and is at an all-time high, at a rate of 15 percent.

When we come back after the break, we're going to be talking to Paul Taylor, who is executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. And they've been studying this, and there are some very, very interesting things in the numbers when you look at them in a little bit more depth.

So we're going to come back to that and take some more of your calls and your stories of what happened when people of different racial backgrounds married and the families got the news. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. It's hard to talk about interracial marriage, as we are, without remembering Richard and Mildred Loving. They were a young interracial couple from rural Virginia who married in Washington, D.C., and when they got back home to Virginia, they were arrested and convicted of violating the state's Racial Integrity Act, and they were banished.

Years later, years later, they sued Virginia, and their case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Loving decision struck down the country's laws against interracial marriage. Since then, Americans have become a lot more open to interracial marriage.

So we want to hear if that's true in your family. If you married someone from another race or ethnicity, how did your family and how did your spouse's family take it? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Now my guest is Paul Taylor. He is the executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, which has been studying interracial marriage trends in America. And Paul, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAUL TAYLOR: Good to be with you.

DONVAN: So we've been reporting over the last 20, 25 minutes this number of 15 percent being an all-time high, and we take that number really from you, and where does that number come from from you, and tell us more about this trend.

TAYLOR: It comes from the Census Bureau, and we looked both at new marriages, and that's the share of all new marriages in 2010, 15 percent were either interracial or inter-ethnic. That's more than double the share from 1980.

If you look at all marriages, no matter when people were married, just look at the full universe of all currently married people, that's also at a record high. That's at about eight and a half percent, and again, that's nearly triple the share of two or three decades ago.

So here's - this is - you know, this - as you describe it, 40, 45 years ago, interracial marriage was still illegal. That Loving case struck down laws that were still on the books in 16 states in 1967. It then progressed from being illegal to being a taboo, and today we describe it as merely unusual, and with each passing year it becomes less unusual.

One of the things we found in our survey - this is not census data, this is our own survey, because we ask the public a lot of questions about this - and we asked them just a few months ago: Is there somebody in your immediate family who is married to someone of a different race or ethnicity? And 35 percent of the public says yes.

So this is becoming a much more familiar and mainstream activity. Some of us are old enough to remember that movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," where it was a very unusual activity. Now it's something that lots of people are experiencing.

DONVAN: What's interesting also in listening to some of the stories that our listeners are telling us is that for some families, at least, there seems to be a transition period of being - becoming accustomed to the reality. Robyn McGee, in her case, her father is not going to get over it, it appears, but the gentleman we spoke with from Michigan, his mom really had concerns, and then she kind of came around.

So it seems as if this process of acceptance is very dynamic and is something that's happening in real time within families as the marriages unfold.

TAYLOR: Yeah, we can see what you've just described in long-term trend data. There's one 40 or 50-year trend question which asked people is it OK for blacks and whites to date each other. And if you go back to 1990, that's not all that long ago - 20 years, 22 years ago - only 48 percent of the country said that was OK. Today, 83 percent of the country says it's OK.

So there's been a rising acceptance, and then if you break it down by age, what you find is young adults are up in the 90s, the 95s in terms of acceptance, and older adults are less accepting but more than they used to be 20 or 30 years ago.

We say - we find the same thing with a more personal question we asked that really gets to some of your - the folks you spoke with just a moment ago, where we say suppose somebody in your family came to you and said I'm about to marry someone, and if it was a white person we were asking this question of, we gave them - suppose they said I'm about to marry a black, I'm about to marry a Hispanic, I'm about to marry an Asian. And then of Asians we asked - you know, we asked each person of the three other main groups in society...

DONVAN: Quite the matrix.

TAYLOR: Yeah, and overall we found, as I think you reported, about two-thirds of respondents said yes, they would be OK with any of those situations. About 80 percent say they'd be OK with at least one of them. Only about one in five said they wouldn't be OK.

But if you break those responses down by age, you get a very big variance. So 85 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds say yes, they'd be OK with any of those situations, but only 38 percent of those 65 and over.

DONVAN: Interesting.

TAYLOR: So when your first guest said that her father was a product of his place and his time, she's describing something that's very real, and if you go back a generation or two, this really was a taboo in much of the country, and those attitudes, you know, they don't pass quickly.

DONVAN: Let's bring in some more listeners. Christine(ph) is in Charlotte, North Carolina. Christine, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRISTINE: Hi, how are you doing?

DONVAN: Good, thank you.

CHRISTINE: Well, I wanted to talk about sort of the Caribbean, you know, angle on this. You know, my parents are Haitian, and I'm Haitian-America, and they actually wanted me to marry a white man. You know, they actually - you know, my mother, every time I would go out with an African-American, she'd be like, oh, you know, because, you know, when you marry a white person, you're thought of - it's thought of like as a stepping stone into a higher social and economic echelon you're putting yourself in.

So, you know, I (technical difficulties) and they were very happy. But my sister married an African-American, and unfortunately for her, you know, I feel for her, but they don't really accept her husband.

DONVAN: Really?


DONVAN: And how do they communicate that? Do they shun him, or is just an attitude?

CHRISTINE: Well, they never ask about him, and when he comes to the house, it's like, you know, they really don't really - he doesn't feel comfortable. I can just tell. And, you know, I always go out of my way to make him feel very comfortable, but they never really lend an arm to him or a hand and say, you know, why don't you come in and sit down. You know, they're just very standoffish to him.

You know, and even after all these years, they've been together for 10 years, I've been with my husband for 15 years, we still feel that there is a divide.

DONVAN: Does it interfere in the happiness of your sister's marriage, do you think?

CHRISTINE: I think so. Actually, it's funny because I think she's going to get - she's going to divorce him. And I think that's played a part in it. That's not everything, but I think that's played a significant part in their downfall as a couple.

DONVAN: All right, Christine, thanks for that insight, it's a very interesting one. I want to bring in Erica(ph), who is in San Antonio, Texas. Erica, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ERICA: Hi, how are you?

DONVAN: Good, thank you.

ERICA: Well, I'm a Mexican-American, and I married a man who is half-Asian and half-Caucasian. So he didn't have a problem, and his family didn't really have a problem with the interracial marriage, but my family did, primarily because they were Spanish-speaking.

And because they were Spanish-speaking, a lot of the - a lot of their fears were really around the loss of culture, the loss of history for the family, and it really didn't take - it didn't really take accepting him fully until his parents reached out to mine and really had a discussion around how culture could be saved.

DONVAN: Let me ask you, Erica: Do they have a legitimate concern, actually, that the culture will be lost, or let's say compromised, watered down?

ERICA: I say yes. We've been married for 10 years. We have a son who's three years old, and I have to tell you that language really is a barrier. My husband has never been able to communicate with my grandmother or with my mother, and our own son - I am, you know, I am actively trying to get him into, you know, a bilingual class or a bilingual school to learn Spanish because I don't want that to be lost.

And so I'd have to say that they have a good point. At first I thought it was ridiculous, but he really does miss out on a lot of things. When we go down to visit the family, you know, and are they're there, he can't participate. He can't share in the stories. He can't share in a lot of things that make the family, you know, what it is.

DONVAN: And so it's not merely that people are narrow-minded. I mean, there actually are serious compromises that seem to come in. There are real things going on here, it sounds like.

ERICA: Yes, I agree.

DONVAN: All right, Erica, thanks very much for your call. Paul Taylor, I want to talk with you also about some interesting analysis that you did, and you went through a little bit of this in terms of age. But in terms of gender, there are differences within races about which of the sexes is more likely to marry out. Can you talk a little bit about that?

TAYLOR: Sure. Actually, there are interesting patterns by gender and also by socioeconomic status. But to start with gender, among blacks, black men are nearly three times more likely than black women to marry outside their race. Among Asian-Americans, the gender patterns run in the opposite direction. Asian females are more than - nearly three times more likely than Asian males to marry outside their race.

Among whites and Hispanics, there are no gender patterns - no gender differences whatsoever. Overall, about nine-and-a-half percent of white newlyweds married out of their race in 2010, about 17 percent of blacks, 26 percent of Hispanics, 28 percent of Asians. So some of those minority groups are much more likely to do this than others. And even though whites do it at lower overall shares than anybody else, the greatest number of intermarriages in this country involve a white simply because whites are the majority group in the country.

DONVAN: Any theories on these patterns? I know that your numbers don't explain theories, but...

TAYLOR: Yeah, I think there's clearly - there are clearly some cultural aspects going on here that I don't have numbers to support. And I'm probably not your best expert at this, but you certainly know. I did a presentation on this on a black talk radio show, and, boy, it's a pretty vivid topic within the African-American community.

The backdrop there is, in the African-American community, marriage itself is on the wane. Only about 30 percent of African-American adults are married to begin with, and this is down from close to 60 percent 30 or 40 years ago. So it's a community where there's less marriage going on. And now, particularly among African-American males, you know, more than a quarter of them who do marry are marrying outside their race. And, you know, I think it's fair to say this is a point of attention between black men and black women.

DONVAN: We have an email from Gail(ph), who writes: My husband's family is from Mexico, and I am white. When we were dating and after our marriage, his family was very much against us being together. My mother-in-law even refused to go to our wedding. After our oldest child was born, things became even more strained. Our son was picked on by my husband's siblings for being white. It was not until my mother-in-law's sister had a stroke and I was able to guide the family through her healing that I was accepted. Our relationship is still not where I would like it, but I feel accepted after 18 years.

So as we said before, Paul, this is a dynamic. This - the - it just sounds as though people are figuring it out and learning. And in the cases of a parent actually disowning, I believe that there are cases where the parents divide, where, say, the father will completely disown, and then the mother has to carry on a secret relationship with the son or daughter who goes into this marriage. I know your numbers don't look to that, but anecdotally, have you come across that?

TAYLOR: We don't have that. I'll tell you a related set of numbers we have, which goes to your last anecdote, and frankly also goes to the fellow who happens to be living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who is the product of a mixed marriage. We estimate that when Barack Obama's parents got married in Hawaii in 1961, something on the order of magnitude of one in 1,000 marriages were between a black and a white.

But what does society call and how does society characterize the products - the children of those marriages? What is Barack Obama? We asked the public a question a year or so ago: Do you think of Barack Obama mostly as a mixed-race person or mostly as a black person? Well, the majority of whites said mixed race. The majority of blacks said black. Barack Obama himself had to fill out his census form last year, and he said black.

The - we are becoming a society - we are on our way to be a society that's majority minority. We are a tapestry of many different hues. And with 15 percent of all new marriages mixed race, the children of those marriages are going to have lots of bloodlines. And the whole question of what we call ourselves, and these old categories of black, white, Asian, Hispanic, what will they mean 15 or 20 years from now? This is an unfolding drama, and I think, frankly, our taxonomy will struggle to keep up with the complicated reality of our lives.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're listening to your stories of interracial marriage and how the families react. And I want to go to Chris(ph) in Murrieta, California. Hi, Chris. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRIS: Hello. Good afternoon.

DONVAN: Good afternoon.

CHRIS: Thank you for taking my call. I have a - actually a very good story, I have to say, unusual, but I was very close to my aunt growing up in my life. And 21 years ago, my husband and I got married, so that was in 1991. And she did not believe in interracial dating of any kind. She was also from Texas, from the South, so she had a very strong opinion. This is my father's sister, and she really belittled my husband, said horrible things about him to me and to both of us that it was wrong.

Well, after - and then she completely disowned me. About 10 to 12 years later, she saw - she had heard from my mother that we moved into a house and that we had two beautiful daughters. And she wanted to come and see us and pay us a visit, and she wanted to come and apologize.


CHRIS: So she came to our home and said straight to my husband, took him by the arms and said, I'm sorry. I was wrong. And it was just, you know - I think - so - and somewhere in her life it had changed.

DONVAN: Wow. You think the child did it?

CHRIS: Well, to be perfectly honest, I think what actually did it was to see what a beautiful home we have and to see that I was...


DONVAN: You just ruined a beautiful story.

CHRIS: I know. I'm sorry.

DONVAN: No, I'm joking. I'm joking. The point is she came around and...

CHRIS: I hate to sound that shallow, but - or that she could be that shallow, but I think she wanted to be sure that I was taken care of and...

DONVAN: Well, good. And it sounds like you are, and it does have a lovely ending. Chris, thanks very much for sharing that story.

CHRIS: Thanks.

DONVAN: I want to bring in, let's see, Quanci(ph) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

QUANCI: John, I'm enjoying your show very much.

DONVAN: Oh, thanks.

QUANCI: Thanks for taking my call.

DONVAN: Sure. I hate to tell you this. We have about a minute left...


DONVAN: ...so I need to ask you to do super compression.


QUANCI: OK. Well, I agree with the last caller, and my husband's family did not accept me as much because they viewed me as beneath them. And then we've been married now 24 years, and we dated for two before that. And I think that we, in their eyes, ascended because we are classical musicians. We're not supposed to make it in this world. And not only did we make it, we are very successful financially. And so when they come to our home, I roll out the red carpet for them. And then, you know, my work ethics have impressed them, and then I take them in like they are kings and queens. And because of that, I've been accepted. And my mother...

DONVAN: But you're saying you were accepted because you were financially success - your career is successful.

QUANCI: I think so. I hate to sound that way, but, yes, they really looked down at me pretty much.

DONVAN: Well, maybe you needed to teach them a lesson, and you taught them the lesson that they needed to be taught by being successful even though you were...

QUANCI: Oh, I don't know.


DONVAN: Even though you were a classical musician. And that awful anti-classical musician prejudice in our society needs to be stamped out right away. Quanci, and I want to thank you so much for your call from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And I also want to thank Paul Taylor who is the executive vice president of the Pew Research Center for this quite interesting and quite honest conversation about family reaction in interracial marriage. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.